Thursday, June 18, 2009

President Urges Citizens to Volunteer

This week the web site announces the United We Serve campaign, intended to mobilize citizens to get involved in community problem solving.

The introduction says "people can achieve extraordinary things when given the proper tools."

"President Obama is asking us to come together to help lay a new foundation for growth. This initiative aims to both expand the impact of existing organizations by engaging new volunteers in their work and encourage volunteers to develop their own "do-it-yourself" projects."

I found this photo showing troops that were landing on the Normandy Beach during D-Day. Think about what this photo illustrates, and compare that to the current mobilization of volunteers to do service.

These troops had been training for months. This invasion was planned for years. The landing craft were being built years be for the invasion because it was anticipated that they would be needed. The solders were well armed, well fed, and led by well trained leaders.

That costs money. Lots of money.

There are lots of ways volunteers can do service. Some projects, like cleaning up a park, or building a house, might take a day, or several weeks. However, these are short term.

Other projects, like tutoring/mentoring require more consistent, long-term involvement, if the benefit is that the youth being tutored/mentored has overcome his own learning difficulties, and the negative influences of his family or community which might be modeling examples and behaviors that don't lead to high school graduation, college or productive jobs and careers.

In both cases, volunteers time is well spent when there are leaders who have the experience to organize their efforts, and support their involvement. Sending volunteers into organizations which don't have this leadership is like sending troops onto a beach without rifles or bullets.

I was a member of the Chicago delegation to the 1997 President's Summit for America's Future, which pledged support for the 15 million kids in America who were being left behind because they lived in high poverty. Lots of great rhetoric and patriotic speeches were given. Read this one by General Powell, President Clinton and others that shows the vision behind the Summit.

The problem was, not one was thinking of the infrastructure needed across America, and in the neighborhoods where these 15 millions kids were living, which would support this flood of new volunteers, and keep them engaged for the many years it takes to help a first grader living in a high poverty neighborhood become a 12th grader graduating from high school and headed for college or a job.

I remember sitting in a meeting following the Summit, with a business leader sitting next to me. When I asked about the money needed to support added volunteers, I was told "we're focusing on volunteers, not philanthropy."

You cannot have good volunteerism without good philanthropy!

And in today's economy, when many of the small non profits who are working with inner city kids are struggling to find operating dollars to keep existing staff employed, how can you expect them to ramp up programs to support more volunteers in significant efforts that can lead to a victory over poverty?

There's still time for the president to use his bully pulpit to call on faith leaders, business leaders, civic and social groups, to reach out to volunteer based organizations like Cabrini Connections, with flexible operating dollars that they need to pay the rent, insurance and staff expenses.

Visit the Chicago Tutor/Mentor Program Locator and you can find links to many similar programs serving Chicago. Become a volunteer if you want, but help bring dollars to support your involvement at the same time.

We can make sure that when these volunteers hit the beach they succeed, and they stay involved until we win this war.

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